A Man for All Seasons

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

A Man For All Seasons is an award-winning play and film by Robert Bolt. After successful runs in London (1960) and New York (1962), it was adapted to film in 1966. The play and film made a star of Paul Scofield, who won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for his performance. The movie picked up five additional Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinneman). Inspired By actual historic events.

Once upon a time, Thomas More was a barrister who became the most trusted adviser of Henry VIII. More was a Catholic with a keen moral focus,[1] and his advice was good.

Then Henry wanted to divorce wife Catherine of Aragon, who'd failed to produce a living son, so he could marry the fertile Anne Boleyn. More refused to support this plan; he considered it immoral, and against his religion. The fact that the original marriage had been arranged to help foster peace with another Catholic country (Spain) didn't help.

Henry VIII decided to Take a Third Option; leave the Catholic Church and found a new one, the Church of England, with himself as the head. More hated this idea and refused to support it -- his Catholicism forbade him from supporting a schism. But everyone else who was anyone in the government did support the king. More, rather than kick up a protest, resigned and kept his mouth tightly shut, but the fact that he would not publicly endorse the idea made it pretty obvious to everybody that he was against it.

King Henry VIII was now good and angry at Thomas More, and the persecution started in earnest...

Tropes used in A Man for All Seasons include:
  • Ambition Is Evil: Richard Rich, whose climb up the political ladder requires him to deliver More to the executioner.
  • And Starring / Billing Displacement: In the 1966 film, Paul Scofield is in the "and..." position, appearing well after first-billed stars Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, and One-Scene Wonder Orson Welles.
  • Author Tract: The film makes it very clear that More is the fella we're supposed to be cheering for.
    • Somewhat justified, in that Bolt was responding to More's canonization.
      • Bolt was an agnostic and socialist; he was responding to More as a person of integrity.
      • Possibly because More was something of an early anti-capitalist himself.
  • Being Good Sucks: It's a major theme; Thomas More remarks that vice often brings greater rewards than virtue, so we must expend extra effort to be good.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In the play, the Common Man addresses the audience directly.
    • Also in the 1988 film version, where the character is played by Roy Kinnear. And dedicated to him.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Subverted here. It isn't after a certain point, but More thinks it should be.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cromwell and, on occasion, Sir Thomas:

Wolsey: The King wants a son- what are you going to do about it?
More: (dry) I'm very sure the King needs no advice from me on what to do about it.

  • Doomed Moral Victor: And how!
  • Downer Ending: The only person to get a happy ending in this story is Rich.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Sir Thomas knows exactly where his resistance is taking him.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress
  • Greek Chorus: In the play, the Common Man, who also takes on multiple roles (including More's executioner). Both the Common Man and most of his function disappear from the film, but Sir Thomas' servant, Matthew, takes over a little of the commentary.
    • In the 1988 film version Roy Kinnear plays the role to perfection.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: At More's actual trial, it is highly unlikely that Richard Rich committed perjury, as his own written account of his conversation with More would contradict him.
  • Hollywood History: Among other things, the play doesn't mention More had three children besides Margaret: Elizabeth, Cicely, and John, besides his various foster children. (BTW: It's historically correct that More made sure his daughters received full formal educations- a rarity at that time.)
  • Honor Before Reason: Done nobly.
  • Hot Consort: Anne Boleyn (in the five seconds we see her, anyway).
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sir Thomas More.
  • Inspired By
  • Karma Houdini: As the 1966 film informs us:

Richard Rich became Chancellor of England...and died in his bed.

  • Large Ham: King Henry in spades. During his attempt to get More's endorsement, he's basically shouting the entire time. Even the other characters notice it, and are listening at the window. Or away from the window, given the volume.
  • Loss of Identity: Averted. Sir Thomas makes it clear, though, that if he had consented to swear a false oath, this would have been his inevitable fate. Richard Rich arguably falls victim to it, though we do not really see the effects onscreen.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: The climax turns on one of these; it's the cause of the Downer Ending.
  • Off with His Head: Sir Thomas (with the aid of a Gory Discretion Shot, of course).
  • One-Scene Wonder: In the 1966 film, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey.
  • Screw the Rules -- I Make Them
  • Smart Guy: Sir Thomas More and his daughter, Margaret.
  • Succession Crisis: Why all this is happening in the first place -- Henry VIII wants a male heir, and wife #1 (Catherine of Aragon) hasn't provided one.
  • Take a Third Option: King Henry choosing to split from the Catholic Church, of course. But also Sir Thomas' decision to side publicly neither with the Reformers nor the Catholics and to remain silent about King Henry's choice.
  • Take That: "Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"
  • The Corruptible: Richard Rich. And how!
  • Turncoat: Richard Rich (against More), Thomas Cromwell (against Wolsey), and, much less opportunistically, the Duke of Norfolk.
  • Where Are They Now? Epilogue: at the end of the film, a voiceover explains what happens in the next few years (for most of the characters, It Gets Worse).
  • With Us or Against Us: There's no arguing with Henry VIII. Nor is it possible to just keep quiet and not say anything about the King's plans one way or the other; Henry will have an endorsement, or else.